A Sip of History

The Rather British History of the Cocktail

The cocktail is often considered an American concoction, but there are elements of the cocktail that are undeniably British. Now there may be many an American bartender throwing their hands up in fury and stating that the cocktail is all-American, but all I can say is hold back the ice as we look at the evidence that supports the British claim to the cocktail.

In the Seventeenth century London turned from drinking ale and cider to alcohol distilled from grain practically overnight, as a result of the reduced taxes on distillation, following a grain surplus.  Grain alcohol such as gin suddenly became cheap in abundance and made for a warm comfort for the poor.

This sudden abundance of grain alcohol found its way into the apothecaries and in 1712 a patent was issued for Stoughton’s Elixir: alcohol-based medicinal bitters. However, whatever its curative powers may have been, much more of it was consumed in the public houses and on the streets than for the treatment of ailments; testimony perhaps to its restorative qualities.

By the 1720s, London distillers alone produced 20 million gallons of spirits; this was in addition to any illicit alcohol produced. William Hogarth etched “Gin Lane”, in 1751, portraying the deprivations of the inebriated poor, including a baby falling from her mothers arms into the gin still below, with the mother being too drunk to notice. Mother’s ruin was a problem of epidemic proportions and it’s taken a while for it to shake off its shady reputation, though today gin is enjoying a revival and it is fair to say that no bar worth its salt would be caught without a selection of gins in stock. After all, a Tom Collins, Gimlet or indeed a Martini are nothing without the gin.

America stakes its claim to the cocktail’s surge in popularity in part through the work of Jerry Thomas who in 1862 wrote the first book to contain a section of cocktail recipes.  Whilst Thomas has been heralded as the Father of bartending, it is worth noting that he actually worked in London prior to penning his book, so who is to say that London didn’t influence his work. Whatever, his influences his work in the sphere of cocktails is commendable.

As more American tourists came to visit London cocktail joints started to spring up and the British barkeepers working in them turned up their creative powers and created countless new drinks. Many of these new cocktail recipes found their way to the States, only to be introduced to Europe a few years later as all- American cocktail recipes.

It was in 1869, that the first British book containing cocktail recipes was published, William Terrington’s ‘Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks’.  The first recipe was for a Gin Cocktail made with brandy or gin, ginger syrup, aromatic bitters, and a splash of water, which came to be known simply as ‘Ginger’.  As well as detailing various recipes for cocktails and drinks from around the globe,  there are a some drink recipes that were formulated by Britain’s first celebrity chef, Alexis Benoit Soyer, back in the 1850s, which were also featured in Jerry Thomas’s 1862 ‘Bar-Tender’s Guide’. This volume no doubt deserves some credit for popularising the British public’s awareness of American-style iced drinks as well as celebrating good old British classics and the drinks that would become iconic.

By the dawn of the 20th century, the term “American Bar” was a familiar term and it wasn’t long before hotels in London caught on to the trend, one of the most iconic to do so was The Savoy’s female bartender Ada Coleman is undoubtedly one of the most famous, courted away from Claridge’s, Coleman arrived with fresh ideas for new drinks and the forged a working union with Ruth Burgess, who had been tending the American Bar for a few years. They were soon dubbed Kitty and Coley by the press and today are still heralded as cocktail making heroes. Coley’s lasting cocktail legacy is ‘Hanky Panky’ a mix of gin, vermouth and Fernet Branca, which she mixed up and served to stage actor Sir Charles Henry Hawtry, who  was one of her regulars. When he tasted it he exclaimed, “this is the real hanky panky” and cocktail making history was made.

When the 18th amendment to the US Constituion was ratified and America was plunged into Prohibition, bartenders and thirsty alike tourists arrived in London in droves. However, the Americans felt it was inappropriate for women to work in bars, so the Savoy’s owner Rupert D’Oyly Carte reacted to the feelings of his wealthy American clientele and let Kitty go and transferred Coley to the hotel’s flower shop and promoted Harry Craddock from a service bar post to the American Bar’s head barman.

This proved a great success, for the press loved Harry, he was a real media darling.  He was a talented and charismatic bartender and it was his collection of 2,000 recipes which was eventually transcribed into the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book. However, this “American” had a well-kept secret: his pedigree was a British one having been born near Stroud, Gloucestershire. He had moved to the States lived in Cleveland, Chicago, and New York for around twenty five years and received his naturalisation papers in 1916, just four years before he returned to his native England to be championed an American talent.  Whatever, his country of birth there is no denying the great mixology flair of Harry and The Savoy Cocktail Book is an everlasting classic, and indeed one of the first books I ever purchased on the subject.

So in the midst of a cocktail making revival there are more great bars to visit and exciting recipes to try than ever before. As for the history of the cocktail it seems that like so many great inventions the exact origins are muddled, but one thing is certain us Brits have had a fair amount of influence.

Well, all of this thinking of about cocktails has left me parched, so I think it’s time for me to turn on the bar lights, grab a cocktail shaker and mix up a cocktail!

Previous Post
The Architecture of the Cocktail: Constructing The Perfect Cocktail From The Bottom Up (Hardback): by Amy Zavatto, Melissa Wood
Next Post
Golden Age of Cocktails – Drink like it’s the 1930’s

Read more…